Her Road To Harvard And Amazon: ‘I’m A Black Woman From Detroit And I Use That As A Resource’

Desiréia Valteau
Written by Desiréia Valteau
Black woman from Detroit
Detroit native Shantell Williams gradauted from Harvard University in May, 2018, and is now a program manager at Amazon in Seattle. Photo: Nicole Flett

High crime rates and urban blight once topped the headlines about Detroit and African Americans felt the brunt of the Motor City’s awful reputation. But the city has seen a comeback since filing for bankruptcy in 2013. New downtown construction dots the skyline with the promise of economic growth from city leaders.

Detroit native Shantell Williams is making her city proud.

“I tell people all the time that Detroit is amazing,” Williams told Moguldom. “It’s awesome. It’s resilient. It has some of the brightest people that I have seen anywhere. And I’m telling anyone that will listen. I am walking around telling people, ‘I am from Detroit.’”

Williams graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University in May 2018 and is now a program manager at Amazon’s corporate office in Seattle. So, what is a young Black woman from Detroit doing graduating from an Ivy League college and landing a job at one of the hottest companies in the world?

Black woman from Detroit
Detroit native Shantell Williams (top row, second from the right) graduated from Harvard University in 2018. She is pictured with her friends who lived with her in Cabot House dorm for three years. Photo: Hakeem Angulu

“Although I am smart, I knew from a young age that being smart wasn’t enough to create opportunity,” Williams said. “I knew many smart people that weren’t able to leave Detroit and had their dreams dashed time and time again. It was actually around 8 years old that I realized being resourceful was the most important thing for me.”

She continued, “I read a lot and wanted to go to overnight camp like the kids in books I read. I knew my mom couldn’t afford that. So, I took the brochures from my school office that listed extracurriculars. I spent two weeks calling every camp in my ‘grown-person voice,’ asking if they had overnight camps, scholarships or financial aid. I wrote down all the requirements and presented the top contenders to my mom. That summer, I went to three overnight camps for $100. It’s experiences like these that showed me being resourceful and creative that provided access to things I wanted.”

While that was a smart move for Williams, some thought that she did not make the best decision when she turned down job offers in her senior year at Harvard and graduated without a job. Williams, who interned at Facebook and Tesla, had her own strategy on how to land the perfect job.

“Some people have this idea, especially when you’re getting out of college and coming from a place like Harvard, that we often want a lot out of our first job,” Williams said. “But there are two things you need to think about when looking for a job. One is the actual company. Are you excited about what the company is doing? Do you respect the people in leadership positions? And the second aspect is what is your day-to-day? What does your scope look like and are you excited about the work you will be doing?”

Williams told Moguldom that many people she spoke with about her predicament told her that she was asking for too much and to just take something. However, with support from her mother who raised her and her older sister, Williams was confident with her decision.

“Many would say it’s a gutsy move or maybe even more of a naïve move to say no to offers,” Williams said. “I would like people to know that you can graduate without a job. People have different situations and that’s not an opportunity for everyone. I get that but thankfully my mom was like, ‘You can come home and figure it out. I don’t know exactly what you’re doing but I trust you and believe in you.”

During the summer, Williams went to work researching various companies and contacting people she knew in and out of the tech industry. She hit online job boards, saw a few Amazon positions, and took it from there.

“I had a friend who now works at Amazon, and said, ‘Hey I’m interested in a few of these roles and could you to refer me?’ That’s the trend I would follow when looking for a job. Do you know anyone in the company who can vouch for your skills, vouch for your abilities, and is actually comfortable in referring you for a role? She actually referred me for a few roles.”

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After the referrals, it was up to Williams to wow the recruiters and she closed the deal at Amazon just a few months after graduating from college. The dismal numbers of African Americans, especially Black women, working in technology did not deter her.

“I’m a Black woman from Detroit, and my experience looks very differently than a lot of people at most of the companies I’ve been at,” Williams said. “So, that to me is something that I utilize as a resource. It’s really something that is priceless in terms of being in a room and being able to say, ‘Hey, are we actually serving this population?’”

That can-do attitude is what made her finish from Renaissance High School (a magnet public school in Detroit) and graduate from one of the top institutions in the world. Williams was the graduation speaker for her Harvard dormitory, Cabot House, and relayed an important message:

“Many of these spaces that I’m occupying, and people like me are occupying, were not built for us,” Williams told Moguldom she expressed to the new graduates and their families of all races. “What I said there was, ‘Harvard wasn’t built for me, but I was built for Harvard.’ And that extends to so many other spaces that apply to so many with marginalized identities. ‘You come in and try to make it your own. You try to leave a mark and make sure your presence is heard.’ The space is better for it.”

Williams plans to work in technology for a while, where she will undoubtedly make her mark and continue to wear Detroit on her sleeve. 

Black woman from Detroit
Detroit native Shantell Williams gradauted from Harvard University in May 2018 and works as a program manager at Amazon in Seattle. Photo: Nicole Flett